A couple of weeks ago, I was sharing a breakfast table and where-you-froms with fellow campers at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, a remote high-country outpost in Yosemite National Park, 2,500 miles from my home turf. When I said I was from Pennsylvania, one of the campers, a Californian, said his son wanted to go to Penn State. I told him I teach at Penn State.
"How're things there?" he asked, meaning, how's the mood on campus since the child abuse scandal that brought down the university's president and its head football coach?
It's now been two years since Jerry Sandusky, longtime assistant to legendary Coach Joe Paterno, was found guilty of multiple counts of child molestation.
Last week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, concluded an investigation into the investigation, finding no evidence of politically motivated foot-dragging on the part of her predecessor, now-Gov. Tom Corbett (R), in pursuing the case against Sandusky.
The same day, I received an email from the office of Penn State's new president, reminding employees that "the University does not condone wrongful conduct by any member of the Penn State community no matter what position he or she may hold."
The message also urged members of the community "to speak up if they see or suspect illegal, unethical, or unsafe conduct," with instructions on how to report suspected child abuse.
The message from the president's office, the report from the attorney general's office and the question about the mood of the university are all a measure of how much the scandal continues to resonate since charges were filed against Sandusky in November 2011. Still to come: the trials of former university President Graham Spanier and two other administrators on charges of failure to report suspected child abuse.
Meanwhile, the arguments about Coach Paterno's legacy rage on. The latest free-for-all was occasioned by a proposal to install a new statue of Paterno in downtown State College. That prompted anti-Paterno readers to remind us, yet again, of how disgracefully the old coach behaved when he failed to make sure that the allegations against Sandusky were taken seriously. And it prompted pro-Paterno readers to bemoan, once again, the great wrong done to their beloved JoePa when he was fired by the university's board of trustees, stripped of Sandusky-era victories by the NCAA and literally knocked off his pedestal when the administration decided to remove his statue from outside the football stadium.
While needed policies and procedures have been adopted and implemented, attitudes have hardened, and the football-über-alles culture has not changed appreciably.
I come at this as one who happened to spend a season in Ukraine, of all places, during the year immediately following Sandusky's indictment and conviction and Paterno's firing and death. Just as Odysseus had to journey inland until he encountered people who had never seen an oar before, I went where no one had ever heard of Sandusky or Paterno.
It was enormously refreshing. I paid no attention to Penn State football that fall. Before I went away, I found myself agreeing with those who insisted that the Sandusky case was not, strictly speaking, a football scandal, and that the NCAA therefore overstepped its authority and punished the innocent when it voided all those victories and took away all those scholarships.
From my vantage point in Ukraine, such burning questions cooled to room temperature. The victory total was a notation in a record book. Whether Penn State would now win most of its games or half of them or only a few of them for the next few seasons no longer mattered. As long as everybody has fun and nobody gets hurt, right?
Alas, when I returned from my year away I found Nittany Nation to be as avid as ever. I found it particularly strange to see how fans fawned over new coach James Franklin after the departure of Paterno's successor, Bill O'Brien, for the NFL.
I could see how, after Paterno's astonishingly long and successful tenure, the faithful might have transferred their allegiance to O'Brien, hoping for a similarly glorious career. Thus we had "O'Brien's Lions" and "Billieve" T-shirts. But when O'Brien bolted after two years, I would have thought it would have been clear to all what an anomaly Paterno's 46-year career was. Most coaches, like most employees in any industry, are loyal until they get a better offer. Best not to get too emotionally invested.
And yet, when Franklin arrived from Vanderbilt, fans flocked to the local airport hoping for a glimpse of His Eminence. Local emporia were quick to hawk a new set of not very clever "Franklions" T-shirts.
And so we continue to put coaches on pedestals and place an entertaining game at the center of the university experience. After everything that's happened, I was hoping to see it nudged toward the periphery, where it belongs.
Frank teaches journalism at Penn State.